Click here to see a map of Elk River’s Ward 1.
by Joni Astrup
Elk River City Council Member Nick Zerwas’ replacement will be appointed by the City Council, not elected by voters.
The City Council made that decision by consensus Monday, Dec. 3, after accepting Zerwas’ resignation. His resignation is effective Jan. 8.
Zerwas was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in November and will be sworn in Jan. 8. He will attend his last city council meeting Jan. 7.
“One of the greatest honors I have ever known was to be elected at age 25 to represent Ward 1 on the Elk River City Council,” Zerwas wrote in his resignation letter to City Administrator Cal Portner. “To be able to serve as council member for the same community where my father served as police chief for 23 years has truly been a humbling, but rewarding experience.”
The council had the option of either appointing someone to finish the two years left in Zerwas’ term, or holding a special election.
The cost of a primary and regular election was estimated at $15,000.
In his resignation letter, Zerwas urged the council to avoid an expensive special election and fill the vacancy with an appointment.
Mayor John Dietz said during Monday’s meeting that the cost of a special election is prohibitive.
He liked Portner’s suggestion: If the council were to appoint, it could interview all applicants, consider choosing finalists and then invite Ward 1 residents to a candidate forum where they could ask the candidates questions.
Then the council would appoint one of the candidates to the City Council.
Dietz said other local governments are facing the same situation and are making appointments. In Albertville a council member was elected mayor and the council will appoint a council member. An Anoka-Hennepin School Board member was elected to the Minnesota Senate, and the school board will make an appointment to the school board.
“I’m not trying to take away people’s right to vote but it seems to me that the state ordinance setting up this policy must be there for a reason,” Dietz said. State law requires a special election if a remaining term is for longer than two years, but if it is under two years the position can be filled by appointment or a special election. There will be just under two years left on Zerwas’ term as of his Jan. 8 resignation.
Dietz said he also would like some consistency and not have three people in the council seat in the next six months. (If the council went with a special election, it would still have to appoint someone to the position until the election was held.) With the time line for a special election, Portner estimated it could be June before the new council member was in place.
Council Member Paul Motin said the cost of an election is a big issue and he’s also concerned about related issues such as low turnout. The council could interview candidates, take input from people in the community and make the appointment, he said.
“Admittedly, it still gnaws at me that I still think it should be Ward 1’s decision, but I just don’t think it really, under the circumstances, makes sense with less than two years to go (until Zerwas’ term is up),” Motin said.
He said he’s more in favor of appointing than having a special election.
Council Member Matt Westgaard said he likes Portner’s suggestion of an appointment process that involves the people of Ward 1.
He’s talked to many people about the issue and the vast majority have said the city doesn’t need to spend six months and $10,000 to $15,000 on a special election, Westgaard said.
With that input and Portner’s suggestion of involving Ward 1 residents in the appointment process, Westgaard said he’s changed his mind from the first meeting where the issue was discussed when he leaned toward a special election.
With the council consensus to proceed with the appointment process, Portner will prepare to set the process in motion. He plans to report back to the City Council next Monday (Dec. 10) with more details about how it will unfold.
The position will be advertised through Jan. 15.